In a recent Parasha, God commissions Moses to confront the feared and powerful Pharaoh. Moses is commanded to demand the Israelites’ freedom and lead them out of Egypt. Far from welcoming the role, Moses demurs, claiming that he is not suited for the task, as he is slow of speech.
“Please, O Eternal, make someone else Your agent,” Moses pleads. (Ex. 4:13) Nevertheless, God insists on Moses fulfilling the command, with the concession that Moses’ brother Aaron will accompany him and speak for him before Pharaoh.
In last week’s passage, Vaera, this episode is recalled, repeating Moses’ appeal to God that he is not capable of convincing Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to depart. Scripture adds further challenging information that God will harden Pharaoh’s heart which will be an opportunity for God to perform wonders and miracles, (including the plagues), to further demonstrate to the Egyptian people that God is all-powerful.
God’s power would become evident in stark contrast to the wavering Pharaoh and the patently helpless
Gods of Egypt, their clergy and faithful. Not only would Moses face opposition from the imposing figure of Pharaoh, but also from his own people. Having accepted the mantle of leadership from God, however reluctantly, Moses informed his people of his having been chosen by God to lead them. The text tells us, “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Ex. 6:9)
In my estimation, Moses’ reluctance to lead should be considered his greatest qualification for his role. He did not seek office for his own benefit, not to enrich himself or to fulfill his lust for power, to feed the appetite of ego or fill the yawning vacuum of vanity. Moses sought only the approval of God and despite all obstacles, he served for 40 years as the servant of the people. If his goal had been to gain the approval of others, it would not have sustained him, as the Israelites were often thankless and critical. When Moses is later challenged, accused of having misused benefits and enriched himself, he responds, “Am I not the humblest of men?” While this has a humorous ring to our ears, in the context it is taken at face value: Moses was indeed humble, honest, and a paragon of leadership which he never sought and yet sacrificed much to fulfill throughout his 120 years.
At this juncture in our political life, we are faced with the daunting task of choosing worthy leaders for the next years. (We note that for Moses leadership was really a second career, as he was commissioned at the age of 80 – Ex. 7:7) Age should not be a disqualification for leadership. As we make our choices, we should perhaps not be too quick to endorse the candidates who are most glib or fleet of tongue, but rather consider those who speak less and do more. Perhaps we should consider whether the potential leader is motivated out of compassion to one’s neighbors or to fulfill a personal lust for power. Did the task choose the leader, or the leader choose the task? Is the leader able to admit weaknesses as well as to tout strengths and achievements? Does the candidate surround himself or herself with advisors and experts with good judgment, and sage experience, or does the potential leader’s inner circle consist of sycophants and those who are afraid to speak truth to power?
Perhaps the many plagues that afflict our nation and our world are meant to teach us that we cannot harden our hearts to the poor and the needs of all living creatures on our fragile earth. Perhaps there is still time, if we choose good leaders, to end our wandering in wilderness and to embark upon the right path, to dispel the darkness around us and fulfill the promise of this land.
Rabbi David Kudan is the spiritual leader of Temple Tiferet Shalom of the North Shore.